Creativity

Dreaming Big

I’m on an email chain with a group of writers. Once per week one of us will send out an email with writing tips, inspiration, or encouragement. The email for this week invited all of us to recognize how often we limit ourselves to only imagining what we feel is realistic instead of dreaming big. We were all invited to respond with the writing dreams we have that feel really big, the ones which are unrealistic, the ones which we know aren’t actually in our control, but we want anyway. It took me some time to even find mine, because the email was correct. I do really tend to focus on making sure that my goals are concrete and within my control. And that is as it should be for goals. They should be measurable and attainable. But dreams are different. Dreams are how we know where to aim our goals. The are the lodestone which helps us pick a direction, even when we know that the terrain ahead is going to force us to change that direction dozens of times.

So I sat with myself and waited for the dreams to surface. These are the ones I found:
To be invited to give a keynote at a writer’s conference
To end up in the acknowledgements of other people’s books because I put in the time to help other writers develop their craft and survive this crazy ride of writing/publishing.
To revise my middle grade novel so I can start submitting it to agents by the end of this year.
To pay off my debts so that I have more head space to focus on creating the things which feel important with less concern about the things that make money.

In comparison with some of the other dreams in the thread, (be a best seller, have a book made into a movie, travel the world on book money) my dreams seem small. Perhaps they are. Perhaps I need to find the courage to dream even bigger. Yet for right now, these are the writing dreams that ring true to me. These are the ones that ring like true crystal when it is struck.

Interestingly, every single one of these dreams is served by the same goal: make time to write every day. I was working on a 500 word per day habit in November until holiday brain fry followed by wedding made focusing on anything else quite difficult. This past week I’ve cleared away the brain fog and have begun to make inroads on the physical mess. That means it is time for me to put 500 words per day back onto the calendar. Because, paths to big dreams are made out of small goals and it is time for me to get to work again.

On Breakfast Outings, Pokemon, and Writing

The morning began with a quest. I’d only been up for a few minutes when Howard wandered into the room and said “you want to go get crepes for breakfast?” The crepe place is down in the Riverwoods shopping area, which is full of Pokestops and Pokemon Gyms. This fact is relevant since our entire family has taken up Pokemon Go in the past month. So we gathered everyone who felt like questing and off we went.

The weather was lovely, the food was good, and most of the stores didn’t open for another hour or two. We wandered along the paths collecting Pokemon and spinning stops. Almost everything about Pokemon Go is designed to get people to leave their houses and walk to different locations. It has certainly worked that way for our family. We now have people randomly deciding to go for short walks, even though we’re walking the same paths over and over, it feels new because we never know what surprises the game will throw our way. Going outside to stare at our phones and play a game is healthier for us than staying at home to sit in a chair and play a game.

I posted the above picture on twitter, and multiple people commented on the snow-capped mountain in the corner of the frame. It is so easy for me to forget that not everyone has vertical landscape looming over them at all times. I so often fail to notice how beautiful Utah is. I need to pause and admire the mountains more.

On the return home, I still had almost a full day ahead of me. For once, the most pressing deadline was on a writing task. I have a short story due at the end of the month and it isn’t fully drafted yet. I’d so enjoyed being outdoors in the pleasant weather, that I decided to sit on my back porch in my red bistro chairs to find the right words to tell the story I had outlined. Milo saw me outside and was so forlorn that I put on his harness and brought him outside with me.

Writing is a strange process. After forming a scene in my head and then writing sentences to convey that scene, I hit a point where I don’t know what sentence comes next. That’s when I pause and open up twitter or do a quick stretch. I have to pull my brain away from the task at hand so that I can circle back around to it with renewed vigor. It is rather like getting a muscle cramp in my hand and taking a moment to shake it out and stretch.

During one of my twitter breaks, I had a series of thoughts about writing, happiness, and goals:

A thing I’m trying to make a habit: instead of focusing on the thing I want and can’t reach yet, focus on the thing I get to do today which may eventually help me to that goal.

My writing career may never make significant money nor have much audience, even though I’d like it to have both. But neither of those goals will ever happen unless I put in the work.

And doing the work is much easier when I learn to love the work for itself rather than treating it like a chore to get me someplace else.

Today I get to sit on my porch with green things all around (and a cat) while I write a short story. That is a beautiful thing to get to do, even if the story never sells and is never read.

I wish I could always cultivate that mindset instead of getting tangled up in grief and worry. Of course the realities of money and bills mean that many days I have to set aside my personal writing in order to do the tasks which actually earn money. Some day those two things may come into more alignment, which would be nice, but I’m also aware that it would change my relationship to the words and the process of making them. Having a dream job often means turning something you enjoy into work, and it isn’t always the best way to balance life. But all of that is in the future. For today I sneak time to do writing which I love and which pays for nothing. And I try to pause and recognize when I get to have a beautiful day full of breakfast quests, pokemon, and writing. No matter what comes next, it can’t take away that lovely day I had.

Fall Break

My kids were out of school for five days. Instead of packing up everyone and heading out for adventures, we stayed home to do comforting things and a few projects. Some of the projects took place in the video game world, but mine were house and harvest.

Years ago we planted grape vines. The starts were gifted to us by a Schlock fan who worked at a vineyard, so we have varieties that aren’t typically seen in home gardens. The vines have matured and we now get a huge harvest each fall.

This year there was a boom in snail population, because for each batch of grapes we brought in, I had to rescue dozens to a hundred tiny snails. The finger pictured is a pinky finger.

The snails had to be rescued because once the grapes were de-stemmed, we cooked them into juice.

Then the juice was cooked into jelly. It was a lot of stove work and glass bottles.

The kitties had their own ideas about how to spend the weekend.

On the Monday of the break there was a different project entirely. We had a big solid redwood playset that we purchased when our kids were little. For the past five years or more, it has sat in our yard unused gathering detritus. We decided that it was time for the playset to move to a home with two six year old boys and a baby. So bright and early we began work.

The job and playset were bigger than the new playset owners expected. But I put my crew of adult-sized kids to work and things came down pretty quickly.

The disassembly process showed me all the ways in which this playset is amazingly solid after sitting outside in the weather for more than 15 years. It also let me see that being disassembled is the best possible thing to happen to it. The new owners will be able to clean everything up, replace aging bolts, re-stain, and replace the few boards that are showing structural wear. I’m glad it is going to people who are excited to do that work. I would never have gotten around to it.

It is always interesting to see what you find in a project like this one. I figured out where all the kid scissors went. We used to have so many rules about scissors not going outside. Rules that were apparently not heeded as evidenced by the graveyard of lost scissors.

Now there is a big empty space in my yard where the playset used to stand. Everything feels open and new possibilities are beginning to be mulled over.

All in all, it was a lovely use for a long weekend. Though I was physically tired at the end of it.

Sunday Morning Writing Thoughts

I was having a little bit of trouble motivating myself this morning. Not that I didn’t want to work, but I found myself wondering why I was spending effort on writing words that are unlikely to ever earn significant quantities of money. That voice doesn’t speak up when I’m writing blog posts or private journal entries. It seems to understand that the value of those words is in sorting my brain…or it has just given up arguing since I keep doing that writing anyway. But when I pick up words with the intent of publishing them via paths other than tossing them on the internet for free, the thoughts begin. The particular refrain this time around is that I really should be focusing on the work which will assist in my goals of paying down debt as fast as possible.

I have counter arguments of course. I know there is value in creative work even if the only one changed by it is me. I know that the people I’ve told about Herding Wild Horses have expressed interest in seeing it complete. I know that I can’t always tell what will grow from the planting of seeds that happens when I write outside of my comfort zones.

And I find myself thinking of a line that appeared in today’s Schlock Mercenary comic:
“If you look close enough at the present, you can find loose bits of the future just laying around.”

And I think of a thing I saw on the internet recently which spoke of how the butterfly effect is always cited in time travel stories, but that somehow people neglect to realize that this means we are all the butterfly. Every small change we make has the chance to dramatically affect the world we will eventually be carried into via the passage of time.

So the answer becomes: I write these things because any future that contains my words published and read, begins with a today where I write those words without any guarantee that they’ll go anywhere.

Retreat Progress Report 1

Go for a walk in the woods
Done
Take some photographs
Done
Maybe write up a post or two about thoughts related to the walk and photographs

Done
Pull out my files of picture book ideas and refresh my thoughts on them
There are two that feel like I should push them forward right now: Herding Wild Horses about Amy’s Mommy, and an unnamed book about a little boy with anxiety.
Write some words on one of those picture books
Herding Wild Horses is 50% drafted now. Much revision will happen after the first draft.

Look at the fragments of blog posts and essays that I never completed
Found notes for three blog posts in my paper journal.
Pick one thing to write up as a full essay
Got one about Haiku and life structure. Will put it on the list for tomorrow.
Generate ideas for a short story or two
Done. They are fragments, but more than I had before.
Read a book
Several short stories from The Sum of Us, a speculative fiction anthology focusing on caregivers.
Help my son with an essay over speaker phone because that is the one last home thing that I do need to allow to encroach into this retreat.
I tried, but not much to do if no one on that end answers the phone. Since I got communication from several sources that everyone at home is alive and well, I know this is a simple case of no one picking up the phone when it rings because they were all too involved in their own things. I’ll try again tomorrow.

Additional things done:
A nap
Wrote emails to a couple of friends
Did some work setting up store items in our new store software
Read some online things
Conversations with friends who are also present at the retreat

Goals for tomorrow:
Finish draft of Herding Wild Horses
Write 1000 words of short story draft
Write the haiku post
Walk outdoors
Take some pictures
Post some pictures

Structuring Life to Support Creativity take 2

A week ago I got to reprise my presentation on Structuring Life to Support Creativity. Unfortunately I heard from people who had to miss it because of conflicts or space issues. So I’m putting up the notes from the presentation here. They are rough notes rather than a fully flowing blog post. If I were to write this out fully, it would need to be 10,000 words or more. I first gave this presentation in 2013. There are some differences in information that I covered, so reading the original version might also be worth your time, you can find it here.

I always begin this presentation by saying that creative pursuits are patient. They will wait for us until we have time to get back to them. It is important to remember this when we are in a period of time where we need to do other things. I’ve had long spaces of time where I had to set aside fiction writing because I needed to focus my creative energy on business, or family, or health management, or grieving, or emotional processing. I lost nothing by taking care of these things first and then coming back to writing. Usually my creative efforts are better for taking time out to manage life events.

Know your goals and priorities
The first task to do when trying to fit a creative pursuit into your life is to step back and examine which things are the most important to you. For me family and loved ones are more important than creating books, even though I love both. This is the major reason that I sometimes spend long stretches without writing fiction: I am spending energy on the hugely creative task of raising children. And any creative task you undertake will interfere with any other creative task you want to do. A lot more occupations are creative than are generally considered creative. We create friendships, orderly homes, art projects, parties, etc. Service that we do for churches, schools, or communities can be hugely creative. Sometimes the work we do for a day job is also very creative. Grieving and emotional processing of life are when we re-create ourselves. Stepping back and analyzing what is most important so you can spend your creativity on that will help you be happier in your life, even if it means you’re spending a bit less time on the thing you thought was your one creative pursuit.

Recognize the pillars of your life.
Many creative people have a day job that literally keeps a roof over their head. Often this day job is viewed as a frustration or a distraction. However the ability to pay bills actually supports creativity. Maslow described this in his hierarchy of needs. We are less able to put energy into creation if we don’t know where our food will come from next week. Household tasks are another pillar that many people resent as a distraction from creativity. However if your surroundings are chaotic, the clutter in your physical space and clutter of undone To Do items in your head may make it difficult to accomplish the creative work you want to do. Social relationships are a third pillar. There is significant variance in the human need for company, but most of us do best, and are most creative, when we have emotional connections with others.

I mentioned before that things like grieving can interfere with creativity. The same is true of frustration or resentment. Any energy we spend on resenting a necessary life task subtracts from the energy available to create new things. Time spent maintaining your pillars creates a space where your writing or art can happen. I become much happier about doing maintenance tasks when I can see how they make the creative tasks possible.

Know your supports and emotional drags
Figuring this out starts with looking at the people in your life. Think about them.
Who supports you in ways that energize you?
Who claims to support you, but somehow you always end up discouraged after being with them?
Who doesn’t support you or actively interferes with your creativity?
You may want to adjust the quantity of time you spend with people who sap your creativity. Or you may want to re-frame that time so that it is further away from your creative spaces. Go to a movie and then talk about that movie instead of going to lunch and end up explaining why you want to be a writer.

Also look at your pillar maintenance tasks. The things that keep your life structure stable. This is when your family/housemates/friends become very important. Because some of those maintenance tasks do drag on your creativity while others are neutral or feed into creativity. If laundry sucks your soul, perhaps make a deal with others in your house so that they manage the laundry while you manage something else. Communication with the people in your support network is crucial. As you are building space in your life for creativity, they also have to give space for that creative effort. Make sure that these discussions include the sacrifices you will make to meet their emotional needs right along side the sacrifices you need them to make for your creative pursuits. (IE, you get one hour of uninterrupted writing time each day, but on Saturdays they get to go out to do their hobby thing.)

Consider what blocks of time and what physical space you can devote to your creative pursuit. Having a physical space can be helpful, even if the space is only contained inside a laptop or notebook. Entering your creative space can teach your brain to open up your creative thoughts, helping you to get in the zone faster. In order to create that space I’ve known people who depend on the smell and flavor of a favorite beverage, others light a candle, or have turned a closet into an office, or have an actual office. Some go to a coffee shop or a library. Some just put on headphones and particular music. The key is that at the schedule time you enter your creative space and train your brain to open up your creative thoughts. Then when you exit you can carry the thoughts with you or close them up as necessary to face the next task of your day. If you haven’t organized a space or made a schedule for time, then that is likely a significant drag on your creative efforts.

Plan your creative effort around your pillars
There are scientific studies done about willpower and how it is a limited resource. Anecdotally, I know this is true for me. Every decision I make is an exercise of willpower and makes following decisions more difficult. This is one of the reasons that decision heavy tasks, such as parenting, can be a huge drain on creative energy. Knowing this can help you as you structure time in your day to make room for creativity. It takes a large amount of willpower to stop playing a video game and go write. It takes less willpower to start writing right after you have finished lunch. In fact if you build a habit of lunch-then-writing the transition to writing takes no willpower at all. And the transition to lunch is helped by the biological imperative of hunger. I call this process setting a trigger.

I rely heavily on triggers. The routine of getting kids off to school in the morning triggers me to get out of bed early. Then once they are out of the house, the quiet reminds me that I need to get to work. Using an externally impose structure like a school schedule is very helpful in scheduling creative time. Our schedules go very mushy in the summer when we don’t have that external structure. In the absence of kids or school structure, I know creatives who sign up for classes, make writing date appointments, use a day job, or use scheduled volunteer work to provide external structure in their day. Using an external structure reduces your willpower load.

It is possible that some of your pillars will absorb creative energy for a time. If you’re struggling to pay bills, then the best use of your creative energy might be to go back to school and get training, so you can get a better job, so that you can be less stressed by bills, so that you have more room in your brain for creative things.

Analyze your blocks
Some things will interrupt your creative time. Other things will prevent you from starting. A challenge I regularly face is that if I know an interrupt is coming, say I have an appointment in an hour, there is part of my brain that doesn’t want to get started on a creative task because I know I’ll be interrupted. To combat this, I had to teach my self that five minutes is enough time to get something done. This is where visualizing my creative thoughts as existing in a cupboard in my brain has been very helpful to me. I open the cupboard and use those thoughts for five minutes then close up the cupboard again and move on with other tasks.

Alternately, you can rearrange the other parts of your life to defend large chunks of creative time. I know many writers who do this. It works best if your support network understands the need for those large blocks of uninterrupted time and participates in helping you defend them. If your support network doesn’t do high-focus creative work, it might be good to spend some time helping them understand creative flow. Because a two minute interrupting half way through an hour of writing time means that you don’t have an hour of writing time, you have two half hour writing times. Minus the time spent putting away whatever thoughts were opened up by the interruption. It often helps to have a visual signal to tell people not to interrupt you. We set up a string of flower lights at the entrance to my office. When the lights are on, my family knows to only interrupt if absolutely necessary.

The list of mental/emotional things that can block creating is a presentation to itself. I called that presentation Breaking through the Blockages and gave it at LTUE in 2015. Clicking this link will lead you to notes from that presentation. In addition to the points covered in that presentation, I add the thought that if you are doing emotional processing of grief or a life change, that emotional process is a creative one. It will absolutely interfere with your other creative efforts. We don’t usually think of grief as creative, but the process of grief is frequently one of letting go an old way of being while creating a new self that no longer centers the object of the grief. Self re-creation and grief are messy processes that slop over into unexpected spaces and pop up at inconvenient times. If at all possible don’t layer guilt for not creating on top of these processes. Remember the very first thing in this post, creativity will wait for you. This can be tricky to remember if one of the things you are grieving is lost creative time.

In my first iteration of this presentation I spent an entire segment on biological rhythms. This time I passed over it lightly, mostly because an audience question reminded me. We all have times of day where we’re energetic and times when we feel sluggish. Pay attention to your patterns, and if at all possible, schedule your creativity for the time of day when you feel energetic.

Transformations vs. incremental changes
When people come to a conference or creative retreat, they sometimes leave filled with energy and plans for renovating their entire life. Take a moment to consider how you want to manage that renovation. A massive effort to change everything often fails for several reasons. Habit is strong, and if you want to create a new pattern, you need to create structure that makes falling back into the old habits difficult.

The example I used was deciding that I spend too much time on facebook. If I declare that I’m going to spend no more than an hour per day on facebook, but don’t put any structure around that declaration, I’m likely to fail inside of two days. If I decide that any time I get on facebook I will set a one hour timer, that is better. I have a trigger to remind me to exit facebook. However I have to use willpower to set the timer and then I have to use willpower to turn off facebook when the timer beeps. It is very easy to forget the timer or distract past the alarm. If I install nanny software that automatically limits my facebook time to one hour per day, that has a better chance at working. I only have to decide to install the software once instead of once per day timer setting. And if I want to extend my facebook time it requires a decision and effort to do so. If I wanted to be even more certain that I’ll stay off facebook, I could delete my account entirely. This puts a significant logistical barrier to returning to facebook. An even more thorough method would be to completely cancel my internet. This last option would forcibly change many patterns in my life, and would have a signifcant impact on other members of my household, which brings me to the next reason that huge transformational life renovations often fail: transformation is hard on your support network.

Making sweeping changes all at once will make other people in your life uncomfortable. Because they are uncomfortable they may (consciously or unconsciously) pressure you to “return to normal.” For this reason massive life transformations can seriously disrupt relationships, which is why communication is critical during transformations. Also critical is disrupting old habit paths and putting road blocks to getting back to them. Certain life events make some level of transformation inevitable: Moving, getting married, getting divorced, birth, death, new day job, diagnosis, adoption, etc. These events inherently make some old habits impossible and provide an opportunity to build new habits. Building new habits is a creative process that will interfere with your other creative process until the new habit is established.

In order for a transformation to work, you have to be willing to let go of your old way of doing things. This may mean letting go of things you like in order to fix something you want to change. An example: I’ve long wanted to switch my online store software to a new system because the one I’ve been using is out of date. I began the process and then discovered that the new store system connects smoothly to my accounting software, but only if I switch to the online version of the accounting software. In order to fix my broken store system, I have to let go of an accounting system that was working just fine and re learn how to do my accounting. I have to be willing to change the thing I like to fix the broken thing.

The alternative to massive life transformation is incremental life change. This is transformation in pieces and at a small scale. It allows you to change a portion of your life and to let that change settle in before changing something else. Small changes can have significant ripple effects. For example: setting up a physical space for your creative efforts is not hugely disrupting to your regular life patterns or to your support network, but having it suddenly enables you to signal when you’re busy, allows you to set up creative triggers, and helps you open up your creative thoughts. Small changes can be significant. And accumulation of small significant changes will, over time, result in life transformation.

Health and Spoon Theory
If you have not heard about Spoon Theory, I recommend reading the linked article. It is a handy metaphor for understanding that we are not all granted the same quantity of energy each day. Some people can make 1000 decisions (or exercises of willpower) per day, others can only handle ten. Sometimes just managing ill health uses up 3/4 of your available energy, pillar maintenance uses up almost everything else, leaving only a sliver of energy for creativity. Being a caretaker for someone else can have the same toll. This is hard and not fair.

Unfortunately grieving (or raging) of your limited supply of energy also uses up the supply. Grief is often a necessary process in relation to ill health or caretaking, but pay some attention to moving through those emotions mindfully. Process them with your support network, with a therapist, with the help of books dealing with your issue. It can be easy to just sit with grief instead of moving through it. Resist the urge to shove it aside so you can focus on other things. “Shove aside” can be a necessary short term strategy, but unless you process that emotion, you’re stuck with it. And it accumulates. And it leaks into every aspect of your life.

Be aware that diagnoses almost always trigger grief (and a host of other emotions.) If you or someone you love gets a diagnosis, you’ll need to process it. The amount of processing depends on you, your past experiences, the pervasiveness of life change, how others around you are handling it, and a host of other factors.

If you are a healthy person, be aware that you know someone who isn’t. Take time to be part of a support network for someone who struggles. Solid support makes all the difference in being able to carve out creative time.

Break your patterns / get out of your box
As you are renovating to make room for creativity, be careful not to remove from your life all of the “distractions” that filled up your creative aquifer. Creative minds need rest. They need time to switch off from all the thinking. This is why you often see creative people diving into binge watching TV or playing video games. They need a comfortable retreat. That is important. However be on the alert for dysfunction in your habits. Eight hours of sleep is necessary for health. Fifteen hours of sleep is a sign that something is wrong. Two hours of video game may be refreshing. Ten hours of video game has almost certainly passed the point of diminishing return.

When you discover that your habits keep you contained in the same round of things, take time to do something new. Try a new activity. Go to a new place. Talk to new people. Get outside your comfort zone. Even if the new experience is uncomfortable and/or unpleasant while you’re going through it, you’ve still filled your brain with new material that you can draw on when you’re creating. Also, many times new experiences end up being enjoyable.

As a suggestion: donating time to helping others is a brilliant way to have new experiences and to fill up your creative/emotional energy.


Expect iterations

As you’re making changes whether they be incremental or transformational, you should expect a try/fail cycle in figuring out your life structure. Even if you do figure out the absolute perfect system where all the parts are working smoothly together, something in your life will change and that system will fall apart. If you know in advance that this is inevitable, you make be able to skip the part where system failure feels like a personal failure.

The example I often use for this is laundry. When Howard and I first got married we had one laundry basket. It was simple and effective. Then we had a baby, and another, and another. I discovered that adding a baby managed to triple the amount of laundry. The basket was always mounded and there were mounds on the floor. I always felt buried under laundry and overwhelmed by it. Then one day someone (probably Howard) said “Sandra, you can have more than one basket.” And he was right. Purchasing one basket per person suddenly changed a massive mound into neat baskets where clothes were sorted by person. All it took was recognizing that the system which worked great for two people was a complete failure at trying to handle five people.

When creativity is getting squeezed out of existence, stop and take time to figure out why the system that used to work isn’t working any more. Salvage pieces that are still working and rebuild.

I close the presentation with questions from the audience. Often the answers to specific questions generate some of the best insights of the presentation. Frequently this happens when one audience member has an answer for another audience member’s struggle. So I close with the reminder that if you’re struggling, you’re not the only one. If you ask your support network, online friends, family, odds are good that someone has exactly the words you need to help you move forward.

Best of luck in your creative efforts.

The Value of Creation

In my morning internet wanders, I found an article with this title:

If you write a book that nobody reads, are you really a writer?

My immediate response (which I tweeted) was “Yes. Next question?” Which may be all that needs to be said, but then I discovered I had further non-tweet-sized thoughts.

I believe that all creation transforms the world even if the only person changed by the creation is the creator. When a small child draws hundreds of drawings, we do not call it a waste. We understand that the act of drawing is helping the child learn skills. Some of the skills are tangible in the management of writing tools. Others exist only inside the mind of the child who is using art to help them conceptualize their world. We do not judge the value of a child’s drawing by how many people view it or purchase it.

Yet somehow as adults we try to evaluate (decide the exact value of) our creative endeavors based on dollars earned or attention earned. We lose track of the understanding that creation is valuable in itself. The child’s drawing isn’t made retroactively worthwhile if that child becomes a professional artist who is paid money for their art. Yes we can have goals for publication, readership, and sales of the things we create, but the meeting (or not meeting) of those goals is separate from the intrinsic value of creating the thing in the first place.

Are you a writer if no one reads what you write? Yes. Absolutely.

Planet Mercenary Advance Copies

Howard Tweets:
Three copies of the @PlanetMercenary RPG book arrived just now. It’s now officially a real thing.

The package was delivered while @SandraTayler was out running an errand. I opened it because I couldn’t NOT open it. Then I took pictures.

When she got back, I said “there’s a package for you on the counter.” Her reaction, which I only saw from behind, was fascinating.

I can only describe it as “There is a giant spider poised to pounce, and I’m in range, and it’s exactly the spider I always wanted.”

So I guess I’m glad I did the box opening because her having that reaction while holding a knife would have been scary for me.

Howard’s spider description was right on the nose. I was looking straight at the book for a moment before I realized what it was. We hadn’t gotten a shipment notification, so I wasn’t expecting them today. Then I froze and for a moment I was afraid to touch them, while simultaneously wanting to snatch it up and hug it. Because, what if it hurt me? What if I picked it up and found that there were huge errors that made the book unsellable and instead of being a triumph the whole thing was a massive failure? (Anxiety is not logical.) So it took an act of will to pick the book up. And to flip through the pages, but then I could breathe again. Because the books are beautiful both visually and to the touch.

I tweeted some replies to Howard’s spider tweet:

This is almost exactly what it felt like from the inside.

Brain wouldn’t parse and when it did I was almost afraid to touch the book, because what if it wasn’t right?

But then it was right, so I cried a little bit. And I’ve been carrying around the book ever since.

I’ve done so many pit-of-despair moments over this book, pushed so hard, gave up so many other things, and now it is real.

The bulk shipment can’t come fast enough. I want to send this out to the backers.

Naturally one of the first things we did was reach out to Alan Bahr and tell him to come get his copy. Until the bulk shipment arrives, we only have three. One for Howard, one for me, one for Alan. He came right over and we sat and talked for a couple of hours. Some was about the book we were finally getting to hold. Some was about GenCon coming soon. Some was about splatbooks and expansions that we’ll want to put out for the game in the next couple of years. And some about other stuff. As Howard tweeted afterward:
I’m not sure whether or not @AlanBahr enjoys coming over to my house because each time he leaves he has at least three new games to write.

Me & Alan: Alan: “Ugh, now I’m going to have to write that.” Me: “No, the point is that—” A: “Stop talking you’re just making more work.”

*Alan flees* Me: “Wait, there’s more!” *Car won’t start* Me: “Ahem.” *waves distributor cap* Alan: “aaaaauuuughh” *dies*

Okay, those last two were comedic storytelling for effect, but Alan really does end up with more games to write. However I think that a trip to the grocery store might give Alan more games to write. His brain just works that way. Alan has been fantastic to work with. As were our artists, our graphic designer, and editors. It takes a lot of people to make a book like this.

I’m still carrying around the book and petting it occasionally. But as soon as I finish up this post, I need to find my focus and get back to work. There is still much to be done to bring this project to final completion.

Brilliance, Darkness, and Quotes from Van Gogh

I went searching for a quote from Van Gogh that someone quoted to me recently. This one:

If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.
Vincent Van Gogh

It has a lovely thought about the importance of creating even in the midst of self doubt. In searching for that quote, I found an entire wikiquote devoted to Van Gogh. I began to read Vincent’s letters to Theo, and discovered they were full of the amazing thoughts of a brilliant mind who battled depression and other mental health issues without recourse to modern pharmaceuticals.

This one in particular cried out to me:

Well, right now it seems that things are going very badly for me, have been doing so for some considerable time, and may continue to do so well into the future. But it is possible that everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong. I am not counting on it, it may never happen, but if there should be a change for the better I should regard that as a gain, I should rejoice, I should say, at last! So there was something after all!
Vincent Van Gogh

I’ve spent the past several years dwelling in a place like the one Van Gogh describes; keeping going, but not counting on things getting any better. Except lately it feels like the endless gray is beginning to clear. I’m beginning to look around and feel that there was something after all. Many of Van Gogh’s other thoughts speak to me as well.

I tell you, if one wants to be active, one must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm — but that’s a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.
Vincent Van Gogh

I cannot help thinking that the best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love this friend, this person, this thing, whatever you like, and you will be on the right road to understanding Him better, that is what I keep telling myself.
Vincent Van Gogh

What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.
Vincent Van Gogh

Seeing his words, seeing the darkness and light that he struggled with in his own mind brings a new dimension to the paintings. I have a new found respect for who Van Gogh was, and a new grief that he struggled for so long with no societal support and without the resources necessary to continue.

I know so many people who are like this: brilliant, shining, thoughtful, good, and swamped by darkness generated by their own minds. I wish it were not so. And even as my world begins to feel brighter, I am aware that storms will come and go in the years ahead. But I can’t let some imagined future storm stop me from enjoying the sunshine today.

On the Writing I Haven’t Been Doing

“And how is your writing coming?” my friend asked after we’d spent half an hour talking about various business things having to do with the publishing industry and Schlock Mercenary. I had to answer “not doing much lately.”

My neighbor came to my door with chocolates. “My mother said that I should give these to that lady who wrote the blog.” I thanked my neighbor, honored to be included in their tradition again.

The message came in on Facebook. “I’ve read your picture books and one short story, have you written any other science fiction?” I answered that I used to, and it used to be available via places A,B,C, but all those places have vanished off the internet. These days my stories mostly live on my hard drive, except for the few I’ve posted to Patreon.

I was reading The Starlit Wood, an anthology of fairy tale retellings. It is one of the few books where I’ve felt like the authors really captured the feel of folklore rather than using the plot of folklore and adding twists or set dressing. There is a place for (and a power in) both types of retelling, but I love it when a story understands that the core of a fairy tale is in what it says to and about the people who tell the story. Fairy tales and folklore are how we tell each other what we’re afraid of, what things are acceptable, what things are punished, and who we are as people. When I closed the book, my brain said “I want to write some stories like that.” and it began thinking through what folklore and traditions I might pull from.

The title of a picture book showed up in my brain while I was on a road trip. Lines and plot sketches soon followed. A second picture book resurfaced in my memory, reminding me it is waiting to be written. A third idea from long ago came back to me and said “maybe I’m a picture book.” That makes three.

Essays sit, partially written on the desktop of my computer. Some are only notes for things I might want to write. Some are barely concepts. I would like to collect a book of essays grouped by thematic topic rather than year of writing. But the project feels daunting and hard to justify.

And then there is the middle grade novel, drafted and awaiting editing. It feels dusty. I can’t see the bright things about it that drew me to write it in the first place. It is possible that if I picked it up, I could blow the dust away and turn it into something compelling. Right now I’m letting it sit because I don’t need another thing pinging around in my brain.

My mind turns over the possibilities for running another picture book Kickstarter. If I got the three books written, I could contract with a couple of artists. Maybe I could get them funded. Hold on to Your Horses was not a huge success out of the gate, but it is a little engine that could. It continues to creep out into the world, finding new children and parents who need it. Strength of Wild Horses goes hand in hand with it. They’ve done well enough that I can consider sinking additional effort and funds into more picture books. Maybe. My desire needs to be strong enough that I’m willing to dig another financial and energy hole which will only be filled gradually. My accountant brain runs numbers, factoring in the fact that if the accountant doesn’t allow the creative some leeway, then we all plunge into depression.

First we have to finish Planet Mercenary. That is the show stopper in most of my imagined possibilities. I have obligations there. Until I ship packages to five thousand backers, I can’t do the final accounting to see whether we even have the funds for me to do more projects. I am both excited about and exhausted by the Planet Mercenary project. Sometimes those feelings come in rotation, other times they co-exist.

Then there is the guilt that I’ve been running a Patreon for a couple of years, and I’m not at all certain I’ve honored that gift of patronage. They are supporting my writing, and I’ve done so little of it. I ponder closing it down.

I end each day with a long list of things I meant to do. I can think back through the hours and know that few of them were wasted. There just weren’t enough of them. Or there wasn’t enough energy to make use of them all. Sometimes my lists are so discouraging to me that I ignore the master list on my phone and instead make a secondary list on paper. Forget my grand plan of productivity, what do I really need to get done on that day. I end the day with items not crossed off on the paper list. Some of this is just the fact of December. This is the month of extra shipping, extra customer support, extra promotional efforts. It is also a month of extra trips to stores and extra financial calculations to figure out if we can afford the gifts which would be most useful or joyful. We eschew most concerts and parties, yet we still find our days filled up.

All of the considerations swirl about in my head, but I have to come back to the realization that three times in the past week I’ve had people spontaneously come to me to inquire after some aspect of my writing. That’s three witnesses telling me writing should get a larger share of my attention. I believe in the power of witness, particularly when there are two, or three, or more of them. The stories themselves are lifting their heads and asking “Is it time for me?” I’d like to clear out, make space, and say yes.